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Iraq postpones national election

National parliamentary elections will be held Jan. 30, Iraqi officials announced Monday, sliding the date into next year in a move that could complicate the U.S. timetable for drawing down its forces.
/ Source: The Associated Press

National parliamentary elections will be held Jan. 30, Iraqi officials announced Monday, sliding the date into next year in a move that could complicate the U.S. timetable for drawing down its forces.

The new parliament will choose a prime minister and Cabinet, a process that could take months. A long and turbulent delay in setting up a new government could force President Barack Obama to revise his goal of removing most of American troops from Iraq by the end of August 2010.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will be hoping to build on his success in last January's provincial balloting to form a strong government capable of dealing with the security and economic challenges facing this country as the American role fades.

But a recent spate of deadly bombings in Baghdad has tarnished his image, and the threat of more violence could rise as U.S. forces redeploy outside of urban areas by June 30 as scheduled.

The election for the 275-member parliament had been expected in December, four years after the current assembly was chosen. But the current parliament did not hold its first session until March 2006, or about three months after the December 2005 election.

Deputy parliament speaker Khalid al-Attiyah said the Federal Court ruled that the current mandate lasts until March 2010 and selected a date 45 days before the expiration.

Some Iraqi politicians had suggested delaying the election for up to a year, giving the prime minister's Shiite and Sunni rivals who did not fare as well in the provincial elections more time to regroup. Al-Maliki opposed a lengthy delay.

Timing critical to U.S. plan
Timing of the election is critical to Obama's plan to end the American combat role in Iraq next year and withdraw most of the 135,000 U.S. troops by September 2010.

Obama accepted a recommendation by U.S. officials in Baghdad to maintain substantial military forces in Iraq until after the election to help guarantee a safe ballot.

Once the vote is over, the U.S. expects to speed up the troop withdrawal, leaving between 30,000 and 50,000 soldiers here after September 2010 to train Iraqi forces and provide logistical and other support.

All U.S. troops are due to leave Iraq by the end of 2011 under terms of the U.S.-Iraq security agreement that took effect this year.

But Iraq's political parties are deeply fragmented. An inconclusive election outcome, with no party winning a commanding number of seats, could lead to protracted negotiations where the makeup of the new government remains unclear.

Following the December 2005 election, Iraq's sectarian and ethnic-based parties took more than five months to agree on a prime minister and Cabinet.

If the process is delayed again and punctuated by violence, it could force the Obama administration to slow the drawdown to help keep order and maintain leverage with the Iraqis to make political compromises.

Al-Maliki seeks strong mandate
Al-Maliki, a Shiite who completes three years in office this week, is hoping for a stronger mandate to forge ahead with what he says would be a unity government that includes all of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups.

But the provincial elections showed the lingering sectarian character of Iraqi politics, with many Shiites and Sunnis voting for candidates based on religion.

Voters in the three-province Kurdish self-ruled region did not take part in the January balloting and instead will choose provincial officials in July.

The provincial election had to be postponed indefinitely in the Kirkuk area because of tension among rival ethnic groups.

Overcoming sectarian rivalries and maintaining the improved security of the past two years will be the two most significant challenges for al-Maliki as he seeks to strengthen his power.

Although al-Maliki emerged from the provincial election stronger, his re-election as prime minister is by no means assured.

The broad Shiite political alliance has virtually ceased to exist following the withdrawal of major blocs and because of the sharp differences between al-Maliki and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council over numerous security and political issues.

The council fared poorly in the provincial elections, and al-Maliki has not responded to its call for a new coalition to run in the national balloting.

Al-Qaida member held?
In other developments Monday, Iraqi television aired partial footage of the interrogation of a man it says is Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, leader of the al-Qaida front group, the Islamic State of Iraq. The government says it arrested al-Baghdadi on April 23.

A speaker who identified himself as al-Baghdadi denied the arrest in an audio message posted last week on a militant Web site.

The man on the grainy video shown Monday said his real name was Ahmed Abed Ahmed Khamees al-Mujamaie, born in 1969 in Diyala province north of Baghdad. He said al-Qaida in Iraq relied for funding on money sent by charities in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria as well as from robberies carried out inside Iraq.

He said the group was responsible for the 2006 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra north of Baghdad that sparked sectarian Shiite-Sunni killings that claimed thousands of lives. He also suggested the group cooperated with Saddam Hussein's now-banned Baath party.

The U.S. military has not confirmed al-Baghdadi's arrest. Past Iraqi claims to have captured or killed al-Baghdadi turned out to be wrong. The U.S. has even said al-Baghdadi was simply an actor used by the terror movement to give an Iraqi face to an organization dominated by foreign al-Qaida fighters.